I have just celebrated my 70th birthday! Originally the plan was to go to Sicily for a week – to follow the Inspector Montalbano Trail – to mark such a significant birthday. However the weather is not that good, even in Sicily, this time of the year so we have postponed this venture until next Spring. Instead, Julia organised a whole week of varied activities – why just spend one day celebrating your birthday when you get to my age?! We enjoyed a wonderful meal with her side of the family at The Crab House in Wyke Regis. I remember going there over 20 years ago with Julia’s parents when it first opened. In those days it was called Oysters, and it was just a wooden shack. We had a dozen oysters each then, washed down with a bottle of chilled white wine. It was very cheap to eat there then, but not now! We went to the cinema to see Gravity in 3D – a really fascinating film which I really enjoyed, together with a large coke and a large packet of M&Ms! We met up with my side of the family in the New Forest for another celebratory meal – a great lunch at the Rose and Crown in Brockenhurst – so good to spend time with my children and grandchildren. We went out for a Full English Breakfast, followed by birthday shopping – and I finally got round to buying myself a new camera. We shared a bottle of nice champagne with Julia’s mother and toasted one another – they toasted me on reaching 70, I toasted them on putting up with me!? Julia and I went to Poole to see Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, at the Lighthouse Theatre – which was absolutely brilliant, and then stayed overnight at the luxurious Sandbanks Beach Hotel making good use of its heated swimming pool and sauna, before visiting Poole Quay and its famous pottery. It turned out to be the best 70th birthday that I had ever had!
Reaching 70 years of age is, of course, a significant milestone according to the Bible. Speaking of the expected span of our lives, the Psalmist tells us: ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away’ (Psalm 90:10 KJV). As with many other Biblical phrases, this was picked up by Shakespeare. In Macbeth an old man comments: ‘Threescore and ten I can remember well: within the volume of which time I have seen hours dreadful and things strange’ (Act 2, scene 4). I was reminded of this during my birthday lunch at The Crab House when one of my brothers-in-law, Jack, asked me, ‘Looking back over your 70 years, what would you say were the key events in your life so far?’ Good question!
Surviving WWII would probably be the first key event. I was born in 1943 and my earliest memory was lying in my pram on the veranda of our house in Greenford when a flying bomb cut out overhead. It crashed into the Glaxo factory only about a mile away, but it could just as easily have crashed on our house!?
Looking back I have come to realise that somehow or other I always seem to have been surrounded by Christianity in one form or another. I was brought up in a Roman Catholic household – my parents were not Catholics but they worked for a Catholic family and we had rooms in their house. I never took to Catholicism somehow – perhaps it was because the nuns who came to visit wanted my mother to have me christened Aloysius?! Later on, when we moved into a place of our own, I was sent to the local Church of England, but I didn’t take to that either. All the talk about a ‘Holy Ghost’ frightened the living daylights out of an impressionable seven year old?! Later I joined the local Methodist Church Youth Club. As a 12 year old, mad on sport, I enjoyed that much more but although they taught me to play table tennis they didn’t teach me anything much about God?! Perhaps the most influential aspect of my early childhood was my friendship with Duncan Edgington, a boy my own age who lived just up the road. Although I did not realise it at the time, they were a Christian family who attended Greenford Baptist Church. I was to learn much later that they felt led to pray regularly for me from that time. I did not know it then but, looking back now, I see a clear sense of what lay behind that line in Francis Thompson’s poem about God ‘pursuing us down the corridors of time’.
The next key event to stand out, in my life so far, was my conversion to Christ in 1960 as a 16 year old somewhat wayward teenager. Although outwardly I was ‘a tough lad’ (as one of my school friends reminded me only a short time ago), inwardly I was searching for something, although I would never have admitted it to my friends at the time. It came about as a result of a chance conversation between my father and the Rev Ernest Forward literally over the garden gate. Ernest was visiting one of our neighbours who was a member of his church and got into conversation with my father who was working in the front garden at the time. My father had little time for church – he was ex-army, 15 years in all – but must have been worried about me because he asked Ernest if there was anything he could do to help me. An invitation to church followed, which most surprisingly I accepted – and the rest (as they say) is history. Here at last I found what I had been looking for, and it all came to a head a few months later when I made a personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ. Fascinatingly, the church in question was Greenford Baptist Church – the very church where the Edgington family who had started to pray for me when I was 5 years of age used to worship before they moved away to Yorkshire.
They say that one of the first signs of senility is the ability to clearly remember things that happened when we were young but forget everything that is happening in the here and now. I don’t think I am quite past my sell-by-date yet – it is just that many of the key events I recall now took place early in my life. A further key event for me was when I was accepted to train for the Baptist Ministry at Spurgeon’s College. It was 1965 and I was 21 years of age. I had started preaching when I was 16, and heard the call to the Ministry at 18, but even so it was still something of a ‘miracle’ for me – a lad from a council estate without much by way of academic qualifications – to be accepted by Spurgeon’s. It meant leaving a promising career as a draughtsman, and in many ways my four years at Spurgeon’s was not an easy time – I struggled with the academic side not having been to university like many of my contemporaries. Nevertheless it was an important time for me, not least because of my experience of what my Pentecostal friends would call ‘the baptism with the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 1:5) during my third year at Spurgeon’s. It followed the sudden death of my father in 1968 – an event that left me with a great sense of need for spiritual power in my life if I was to fulfil the ministry God was calling me to. To plagiarise Samuel Chadwick: ‘It awakened my mind as well as cleansed my heart. It gave me a new joy and a new power, a new love and a new compassion. It gave me a new Bible and a new message. Above all it gave me a new intimacy in the communion and ministry of prayer’.
In 1969 I was called to my first church – Bewdley Baptist Church, Worcestershire – and commenced what was by any standards a most amazing period of ministry. Before I began my ministry Barney Coombs prophesied over me that ‘If you faithfully preach the word that I give you, says the Lord, you will lose people … but for everyone you lose I will give you two others!’ Over the years I have seen that prophecy fulfilled time and time again. Looking back it was the nearest thing to genuine Revival that I have ever seen. Over the next few years we saw the church grow significantly both numerically and spiritually with large numbers of conversions, baptisms, healings and signs and wonders. What was happening impacted the whole surrounding area and revived a number of dying churches to boot. It would be true to say that at the time we did not know what we had as a church until we lost it … but perhaps that was how it was meant to be?! It was during this time in Bewdley that I married and witnessed the birth of my two wonderful children, Caroline and David … David born with a serious congenital heart defect that, through prayer and the grace of God, he miraculously survived.
The following 25-30 years saw a number of changes in pastorate, and each one was accompanied by the same numerical and spiritual growth that we experienced in Bewdley, although never quite with the same intensity or spiritual fervour that we witnessed then, as God repeatedly fulfilled his prophetic word over me. This period in my life was not without its sadness’s and periods of darkness however. The break up of my first marriage in 1987 was particularly sad and led to a period of darkness and difficulty and ultimately caused me to prayerfully review my faith and lifestyle. By God’s grace I have come through that period a stronger, better and wiser, person. That experience has given me a greater understanding of the grace, mercy and forgiveness of God, and a greater compassion for others, particularly those who are going through difficult times themselves.
Meeting, and eventually marrying, Julia in 1991 was another highlight in my life so far. After nearly 23 years of married life I can honestly say that in Julia I have found my soul mate. Although she is 15 years younger than me we get on so well together. She is my best friend and my partner in the Ministry God has called us both to. We have worked together in ministry at Kinmel Hall, Far Forest, and Kings Heath, since we married, and she herself trained for the Baptist Ministry at Spurgeon’s College during our time in Kings Heath. Following the completion of Julia’s training we accepted a joint call to Beckenham Baptist Church, Kent. The church had seen happier days but once again we saw a period of sustained numerical and spiritual growth, during our seven years there, with numerous baptisms and over 100 new people joining the church as members.
Our time in Beckenham was ultimately not without its own sadness, however. During my years in the Baptist Ministry I had managed to overcome my lack of confidence in my academic ability and had gained a BA degree in Theology and an MTh in Applied Theology. Whilst at Kings Heath I started to work for a PhD, and continued my work whilst at Beckenham. I worked really hard and finally submitted my dissertation in 2007. Unfortunately it was not considered worthy of a doctorate, and I was not given the opportunity to re-submit despite the fact that I had worked so hard for nearly 10 years on this, although I was eventually awarded an MPhil for my efforts. Now is not the time or place to go into the ‘why’s and wherefore’s’ of this, suffice to say that I felt myself badly let down and this whole fiasco seriously undermined my confidence in people whom I had previously considered as friends, and in the college where Julia and I had trained and where we had done most of our academic study. I still feel a sense of great sadness over this although I have tried my best to put it behind me and press on.
On top of all this Julia became unwell. She began to display symptoms of fatigue, a condition that was eventually diagnosed as ME. In some ways this was not surprising. Despite the death of her father just before Christmas, and the shock and disappointment of me not getting my doctorate, she continued to work very hard and in the end it all became too much for her. Her health fluctuated – sometimes she was able to return to work for extended periods only to then have a sudden relapse. In 2010 the Deacons at Beckenham came to the decision that because of her ill health she ought to stand down from her position as Associate Minister, and that I should leave as well since I was already two years over ‘retirement age’. This seemed a very strange decision given that during our ministry the church had finally experienced a sustained period of numerical and spiritual growth after more than 50 years of steady numerical decline. Originally the Deacons had asked me to stay on until I was 70, and the plan was that Julia would then take over as Senior Minister. Sadly this was not to be and, although the Church Meeting ultimately disagreed with the Deacons’ decision, too much water had already passed under the bridge and so Julia and I accepted the decision, and left with as much grace as possible, even though we honestly believed that the Deacons had got it badly wrong and that we were leaving at least three years too early. What made it worse for us was that we really loved being at Beckenham – the church, the people – and we felt a real sense of bereavement in leaving. As a result we have ended up ‘house sharing’ with Julia’s aged mother in Dorset. Julia has made an excellent recovery and is currently in the Settlement Process seeking to find another church where she can resume her calling as a Baptist Minister. Hopefully I will be there alongside her to help her in any way I can – either simply supporting her in her ministry or as a ‘non-stipendiary’ Associate Minister if the church that calls her would like me to be so involved.
So, three score years … and then? The Psalmist speaks of the possibility of vibrant life beyond our 70s – ‘The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years …’ (Psalm 90:10) – and I still feel that I too have so much left yet to offer. ‘I don’t think you ever really lose it!’ Ernest Forward said to me recently … and he should know because he is well into his 80s and still looking full of vitality and, I suspect, still capable of preaching a great sermon! What a mistake for churches to rule out people like me just because we are in our 70s in favour of someone in their 30s who they hope will revive their failing children’s and youth work. There must always be a place for younger Ministers – I was one myself once – but I am sure that there are also a good number of churches who actually need someone older with more experience to help them find their way in God again!? So who knows what is round the corner for us – even for me as I enter this ‘by reason of strength’ period in my life! Three score years and then some, I hope!